Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Implications of the Demise of "Fact" in Political Discourse 1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Implications of the Demise of "Fact" in Political Discourse 1

Article excerpt

In 2004, an aide to then-President George W. Bush smugly informed journalist Ron Suskind that the "reality based" community and the reporters within it had been rendered largely irrelevant by those like the informant who create their "own reality." And "while you're studying that reality," the aide added, "we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."2 What follows is a tentative exploration of the implications of the sort of reality-creation the Bush aide touts. My focus on past fabrications assumes that understanding the conjurers' wiles is an essential step in undercutting them. Two stratagems recur in the four cases I will outline: (1) transforming palatable deceptions into presumably powerful ads and (2) drowning any corrections offered by opponents or expert knowledge-certifying communities in a wash of manipulative messaging. These means of controlling the communication environment increase the likelihood that the so-called reality creators will be able to highjack the issue agenda, manipulate the contours of legislation, foreclose desirable policy options, and thwart the public will.


As theorists from Sextus Empiricus3 to Wittgenstein4 have observed, arguments are grounded in presupposed premises that serve as the foundation or point of departure for the case being made. To thwart that process, one need only dispute a primal premise or challenge the integrity of offered evidence. Lacking the time, the inclination, and the expertise to do otherwise, audiences license some statements to ground arguments not because they understand their empirical basis but because they trust the integrity and impartiality of a certifying institution. As Dewey noted, traditionally, such institutions have not been responsible for framing and executing policies; rather, their mission is making known the facts on which the policies depend.5

When the public accepts the knowledge-certifying role of institutions such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Labor Statistics, and the National Academy of Sciences, these entities are able to serve as custodians of "the knowable," guarantors of the building blocks on which policy decisions can be constructed. Bolstering the credibility of such knowledge-certifying institutions is the public's confidence that the conclusions offered are produced using transparent methods and are subject to rigorous forms of review within a community whose norms protect its integrity (Figure 1).

Because two of journalism's key functions are (1) holding those who wield power accountable and (2) translating key findings of the knowledge custodians for the citizenry, the press, in this model, is responsible for not only conveying what expert communities know, but also exposing instances in which knowledge custodians fail to live up to their ideals and uncovering cases in which policymakers or others misrepresent their findings. Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize winning project of the Tampa Bay Times, performed this accountability function when it contextualized a presidential candidate's declaration that "[t]he weight of the evidence [on climate change] is that most of it, maybe all of it, is because of natural causes . . . . There's lots of layers to it. But at least as to any potential man-made contribution to it, it's fair to say the science is in dispute." Instead, Politifact reported:

A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences-the official publication of the United States National Academy of Sciences-found that out of 1,372 climate researchers surveyed, approximately 97 to 98 percent of those actively publishing in the field said they believe human beings are causing the climate change . …

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